William Sovern was many things to many people: artist, mentor, community leader, humanitarian, maybe even father figure.
Many simply knew him as “Hoosier Bill.” Those closest to him define him by his authenticity, generosity and larger-than-life presence.
“Bill never sold out. Never even came close,” said friend and former Courier & Press photographer Bob Gwaltney. “He stuck to his dream of being a poet, being an artist. Those were values he did not vary from.”
However one knew him, it’s clear that Evansville’s art community has lost perhaps its most influential force. Sovern, Indiana’s Beat Poet Laureate, suffered a severe brain injury in a car accident on July 29. After being taken off life support, he remained in hospice care until his death Friday night. He was 73 years old.
“This is going to hurt our community immensely,” friend Jean Kizer said. “It will be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to even try to fill his shoes. If you look at a lot of things around Haynie’s Corner and Downtown, it’s there because of him. He had a gift.”
Kizer described Sovern as fiercely loyal, eternally forgiving, eloquent, kind, thoughtful and gentle.
He was the driving force behind the establishment of Haynie’s Corner in the early 2000s, opening the first art gallery there and tirelessly petitioning city leaders for recognition of the area as an arts district, which eventually became a reality. But he was even more hands-on than that, Kizer said – Sovern believed that supporting the arts meant supporting the artist on a personal level.
“He was always finding someone a place to stay, feeding them, giving them a space to perform,” she said. “Musicians, painters, poets … he didn’t draw any lines. If you were doing anything creative, he was there to support you. He always saw the good in people.”
Sovern served in the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam as an intelligence officer, interpreting aerial photographs to identify strike coordinates. He had a sharp eye for detail, and when he came back to Evansville he put his energy into getting an arts degree from the University of Southern Indiana and immersed himself in the local arts scene.
Aside from his poetry, he was also a documentary filmmaker, ran an art gallery, organized events, painted houses, did aerial photography and filmed the Kentucky horse racing circuit for broadcasts, among other endeavors.
“Evansville was not really known as a super place for creative people,” Kizer said. “Bill made a space for that. He would meet all these young people and connect them. I truly believe without him that community would not exist today as it does.”
Grace Strange stayed by Sovern’s side during his final days, recalling a promise she once made to his mother. The two met in 1992 and remained close after their romantic relationship ended. Strange joked that he was the best friend she ever had, and also the worst boyfriend she ever had.
“I don’t get too far from his bedside … I promised his mother on her deathbed that no matter what, I would always look out for him,” she said. “I am so incredibly proud to call him my friend.”
Sovern and Strange held poetry readings at their apartment on Southeast Second street during the 1990s — Strange said she feared they would be evicted one night when 105 people showed up — and ran a Downtown gallery called The Poet House and Art Emporium together until 2010.
Sovern held poetry readings at various venues around Evansville for decades, bringing in poets from across the Midwest. Most recently, his groups would meet at Bokeh Lounge on the third Tuesday of each month. A memorial reading at Bokeh is planned for Aug. 16.
“Bill has been a marvelous mentor to dozens of young men and women,” she said. “He encourages everyone to have a voice, whether you are a professional or you just wrote it on a bar napkin. We used to joke that poetry was free therapy.”
In the late 90s, Sovern started a poetry performance band called Shakespeare’s Monkey, a bit of self-deprecation on the concept that enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time could eventually manage to turn out texts on the level of William Shakespeare. The band backed poets with instrumentation, creating soundscapes to complement the spoken word.
“It was a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vibe,” Kizer said. “This was a time when poetry as an art form was a force. People were paying attention.”
Teresa Roy said she knew Sovern for about 35 years and described him as a “magnificent person.”
“I’ve heard him called our ‘Pied Piper of Poetry’ but he was so much bigger than just that,” she said. “To me, it’s all about the legacy he created. You always had a place with Bill.”
This is the article that was in The Courier & Press written by Michael Doyle